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Despite guilty plea, TCH denies responsibility for fatal seniors' apartment fire

Last Updated Jul 13, 2017 at 1:44 pm EDT

Toronto Community Housing (TCH) pleaded guilty Thursday to one charge laid by Toronto Fire Services, in connection with a fatal fire at a seniors’ apartment building last year. However, TCH is denying full responsibility for the fire.

Four people died and fifteen were taken to hospital after fire broke out on the top floor of the five-storey TCH building on Neilson Road on Feb. 5, 2016. Since then, the Ontario Fire Marshal, Toronto fire, and Toronto police have been investigating.

Ninety-year-old Charles Roberts and his 72-year-old wife Hyacinth died in the blaze. They had been married for 51 years. Their bodies were found in the fifth-floor hallway. The third victim was later identified as 86-year-old Azeema Safraj.

The fourth victim died in hospital nearly a month later, on March 2. The identity of the fourth victim was never released.

TCH pleaded guilty to failing to implement the approved fire safety plan, the City said on Thursday. The $100,000 fine, which is paid to the City of Toronto, is the maximum allowable under the Fire Protection and Prevention Act.

Outside of court on Thursday, TCH said the guilty plea did not mean they were responsible.

“Neither the specific charge nor the agreed statement of facts alleged that the deficiencies in the implementation of the fire safety plan caused or contributed to the February 5 fire, or any loss of life, injuries or damage to the building sustained as part of that fire,” Graeme Hamilton, the lawyer representing TCH, said at the York Civic Centre.

Earlier this year, CityNews learned that the chairs in an alcove in a fifth-floor were deliberately ignited with an open flame, causing thick smoke to quickly fill the hallway.

TCH was facing charges for just having those chairs in the alcove, because it is against the fire code to have combustible materials along an exit route. They were also accused of failing to train staff properly in fire safety protocols. These two charges were dropped by the City.

Toronto Fire deputy chief Jim Jessop said the charge TCH pleaded guilty to covers the two other charges. While he could not speak to the arson investigation, he said the fire was fuelled by the polyurethane foam that was in the chairs.

“We’re still hurting up to today from their loss,” Fitzpatrick Richmond, the son-in-law of Charles and Hyacinth Roberts, said.

“TCH chose to plead guilty to this minor charge. I think personally that they covered up the evidence for the more major charges. They should have been charged with a more serious crime … paying $100,000 for four lives – that is what a life is worth to them?”

Jessop said this fire was one of the worst the city has seen in the last decade, in terms of the number of fatalities and serious injuries.

“The individuals caught on the fifth floor did not stand a chance because of the rapid development of not only the gases but the carbon monoxide and the heat. The temperature rose so quickly because of the foam,” he said.

In its inspection after the fire, Toronto Fire Services found deficiencies in the building’s implementation of the fire safety plan. Since then, the city said “steps have been taken to fully implement” the fire safety plan.

Since the tragedy, the fire department has inspected all TCH highrise and seniors’ buildings, and will carry out yearly inspections.

Jessop said if the four residents had stayed inside their units, they would have had a better chance of survival.

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With reports from Cynthia Mulligan